Reviewed by Derick Becker (University of Nottingham Malaysia)
Published on H-Africa (June, 2020)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)
A Necropolitical Review
It is difficult for any scholar looking across the expanse of history to declare, “Here is where things began to change and this is why.” To do so for an era within which one lives is that much more difficult. Yet this is precisely the path that Achille Mbembe has set out upon in his latest work, Necropolitics. The book is a meditation on the current epoch—one defined by a sense of global realignment, an inward turn, and a reorganization of space and being between the living and the dead. In short, this epoch is defined, according to Mbembe, by a politics of enmity and separation. If globalization is said to shrink the world, to perceptually link my actions here with those of a distant people over there, Mbembe sees a backlash of retrenchment and borderization. We are returning to a politics of “us versus them,” fueling a desire to de-link ourselves from the world. Or at least de-link the liberal democracies from the rest.
For Mbembe there is something inherently unstable in liberal democracies that makes the politics of enmity rise up to breed scapegoats and xenophobia and to deal death upon a malevolent, sometimes distant other against which they are juxtaposed and without which they cannot exist. Despite the dark picture he paints, Mbembe sees a path forward that rests on the formation of a true global democratic ethos and borderless world. Such a world will require rethinking our common bonds, our notion of community among communities, to become global and less parochial. Expanding upon the work of Frantz Fanon, Mbembe argues that this transformation begins with a gesture of care, where we see our shared vulnerability as humans and allow ourselves to be affected by others. Mbembe’s meditation seeks another kind of global politics—“a politics that no longer necessarily rests upon difference or alterity but instead on a certain idea of the kindred and the in-common” (p. 40).
Mbembe harbors no illusions about what is at stake and what is required. But it is possible to descry a hint of optimism. His thoughts rest on extending Fanon’s thesis that humanity is always in creation. It is not bound by the preconceived. It is possible that in the subtle yet powerful gesture of care and solicitude toward another we may decolonize a relationship of alterity to reveal our shared humanity. Such remarks, however, rest on the reading of but a handful of pages. The problem is that even for an academic work Necropolitics is nearly impenetrable. It is a tangle of digressions woven within a confounding and circumlocutory text that seems intended to offer no such clarity, no clear analysis, and little effort to communicate beyond an incredibly narrow range of scholars.
Mbembe has always pushed readers beyond their comfort. His writing revels in a poetic nimbleness that captures something more than the dry language of most scholarship. His many digressions always elucidate something otherwise hidden. Yet in his current work it is this very free hand that obfuscates and confuses. To be sure, there are islands of brilliance here and there, moments of clarity whose logic and reason are near irrefutable, but these islands are like the rough-hewn rock faces of the few smatterings of land in the Southern Ocean—their appeal lies almost entirely in the contrast to the turbulent ocean itself.
Let us put aside the bewildering writing for a moment and focus on the fragments of argument that I can discern. For Mbembe, the defining characteristics of our epoch are the overarching themes of a repopulating of the earth and a great movement and balkanization facilitated by militarism and capital that is ushering in a great escape from democracy. This, in a nutshell, is his thesis. It is a complex one, but it is the lone thread through the book’s eight chapters. This theme of movement coupled with the necropolitics of enmity are developed in the first substantive chapter. Here Mbembe sees a move to balkanize the world driven by something inherent in democracies and their insistence on distinguishing citizens from others. Consumed by this politics of the democratic community and its citizens, democracies are, according to Mbembe, innately focused on questions of belonging and separation or what French philosopher Jacques Ranciere would call the politics of who counts (Disagreement, 2004).
Yet, for Mbembe, this focus on being and belonging is not common to any definition of a people or a community but is instead unique to the Western mythos and its drive to universalize its particular parochialism. This gives rise to a deeply questionable theme in chapter 3 where Mbembe opens up with a definition of sovereignty as the power over life and death. But if we take his starting point that democracies are consumed by the community and its defense then perhaps it is possible to see the sovereign democratic state as decreeing a space of peace within bordered by a space of violence without (one may readily recall here the image on most university copies of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan). Mbembe takes it a step further, however, in articulating his argument that democracies create violent others by necessity: democracies, he argues, see this pacific space as defined by a public sphere of reason. By association it is beyond the borders of the peaceful community that one finds unreason.
Such unreasoning boundaries might be harmless if it were not for the twinned themes elaborated upon in chapters 4 and 5. Here we find a detour, a disquisition on our relationship to technology wherein it is increasingly less a liberating tool than one that is coming to define us in an intriguing era of late techno-capitalism. Here capitalism and technology have become deeply intertwined with our lives and yet far removed in the abstraction of knowledge production that increasingly the only knowledge worthy of its name is defined by its contribution to the market and wealth. It is not that there is much to fault in the chapters’ conclusions, but it is not clear what one is to make of the argument nor is it clear that it moves us beyond the work of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), or even the work of Timothy Mitchell or Henri Lefebvre.
Mbembe's techno-dystopian musings are instead laden with a deeply questionable Freudian take on society. For Sigmund Freud and Mbembe, technology is a fickle beast unleashed into a society with barely constrained destructive primitive drives that continually threaten to consume us. We are, as such, perennially on the precipice of civilization and its violent discontents. Our basest desires, and capitalism's base need for profit are in a dangerous alliance with technology throughout these latter chapters. Fear and technology combine to create a security state dealing death abroad while our basic reptilian brains are titillated at home into a stupefying numbness of social isolation in the service of profit.
Most of the chapters above are only bookended by coherence. The middle pages meander, twist, and turn in ways that discombobulate the reader. Digressions abound but rarely do they return to something resembling a cogent thesis. They merely call into question the poet's dictate to take the path less well traveled. All of which makes the last chapter and conclusion somewhat refreshing for their continuity, their fluidity and development of an argument built on Fanon's theory of decolonization and the need for compassion. Indeed, the sum of Mbembe's argument exists solely here.
It is, however, worth pondering the text and its overarching thesis as there are considerable problems with it. There are two points that emerge throughout the text that cannot be (or certainly are not) reconciled: the rot inherent in democracy and the need for a new global ethos of democracy. Admittedly, the latter point drawing as it does off of the above point on Fanon is laudable. Yet it clashes violently with the way in which democracy is approached throughout the book. The problem, I believe, is in the uncritical conflation of democracy, liberalism, and the state as historically monolithic. This is only made worse by the tendency to glide over the reality that democracy and liberalism have throughout history often been far short of their idealization. There is, however, an analytically important difference between principles and their praxis in the contingency of history. That difference is swept away by Mbembe's generalizations. In principle liberalism, as both a philosophy and theory of governance, has sought to banish violence from politics, to juxtapose its rule with that of the tyrant. Yet Mbembe is quick to argue that history shows this will not bear the slightest scrutiny (p. 16) and that no democracy can exist without a link to its nondemocratic colony (p. 27). In liberalism's mythos, a violent other; in historical practice, a violent othering. However much we must look at ideas in practice we must also see their principled purity on the one hand, and messy historical contingency on the other. The binary juxtaposition of liberal peace and violent other has, however, been rendered by Mbembe into a litany of problematic binaries whose explanatory power is questionable at best, absurd at worst. Yet such binaries permeate his analysis.
If democracy as a starting point takes as its referent a people or community, then it must always define its communal borders between an us and a them. There is no doubt that democracy coexisted with both colonialism (an external other) and slavery (an internal other) and that both are contrary to its principles. But is this an artifact of history or a flaw inherent in the principles of liberalism itself? Further, that any community would, by definition, require a border, a boundary between an us and a them seems to be irrelevant here. Indeed, Mbembe opines that somehow democracies are unique in being “communities of fellow beings, and therefore ... societies of separation” (p. 42). That there may be other, more deeply social logics at work that push people to cohabit with whatever they presume to be their “fellow beings” is simply not relevant to his analysis—nor that liberalism takes a very expansive definition of the community.
It is, further, not entirely clear that such democratic communities require violent demarcations defining “a sphere of common belonging against a sphere of others, or in other words, of friends and allies and of enemies of civilization” (p. 53). Throughout the text, Mbembe assures the reader that without this violent unreasoning, other liberal democracies surely would not exist. Is Mbembe unaware of or indifferent to the role of ambiguous yet always nefarious “others” in totalitarian states? The Stasi archives are filled with photos that would not be out of place in an introductory photography course if they were not testament to the paranoid delusions of an authoritarian state that saw enemies everywhere. Regimes that lack legitimacy often externalize a threat to justify power and this is not a particularly democratic problem.
But here too we find another problematic binary in Mbembe’s monolithic democracies: “one of the major contradictions of the liberal order has always been the tension between freedom and security” (p. 103). On the one hand, Mbembe is clearly speaking to the creeping power of the security state evident since the “war on terror.” This increasingly powerful state with immense technological resources to “deal death” from afar is at the heart of Mbembe’s argument that the world is increasingly divided between spaces of living and death. This space is patrolled by a technologically powerful state on behalf of a small part of the world. But Mbembe’s point is far less revealing than he acknowledges. Many political philosophies recognize a tension between security and the pursuit of the good life—however defined; liberalism simply takes as its focus to maximize this freedom as a starting point. But this is not where his reasoning goes because, on the other hand, he suggests that there is something primitive and bestial in our nature unleashed by the collective “masses” at the heart of democracy, its community. The masses, according to Mbembe, only respect power (p. 56). That he justifies this position with one of his numerous and deeply flawed invocations of Freud we must momentarily set aside, for it is not at all clear that democracies are unique in the tension between freedom and security. All states are concerned with security. It is just the democracies at least that care about freedoms. But replace “freedom” with “social harmony” and you find the Chinese (loosely Confucian) expression of the same tensions and one that is used to justify a vastly more powerful authoritarian state. Indeed, such vilification of an evil other justifying a strong state whose purpose is to provide a questionable domestic peace is a hallmark of authoritarian states, not democracies.
But Mbembe’s argument that this tension either only matters or is only found in democracies rests on the second point: that democracies are, in theory, the voices of the masses and the masses, following Freud, are but a horde and the horde only respects strength. Chains of disparate logical inferences are common in any academic analysis, but Mbembe frequently makes a point and justifies it by referring to Freud, whose work has no value in contemporary psychology or psychiatry except as a sort of antecedent provider of terminology (e.g., id, ego, and superego). One might allude to Freud as a literary device, but not as a means of analytical rigor. What are we truly to make of his argument, following Freud, resting on this excessive masculinization of the masses—or “horde”—and its love affair with power? If Mbembe wishes to explore the tendency of people to accept authoritarian power— even in democracies—if that power provides security, then he could examine Ronald Inglehart's 1997 work exploring subjective perceptions of security and acceptance of forms of power (Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Rather than explore the pertinent social science literature, Mbembe invokes Freud. A survey of this literature would reveal that many of the charges he levels at liberal democracies are not at all limited to them.
Take, for instance, state power. In his discussion of the trade-offs of freedom and security, Mbembe is pursuing a fair critique of the rise of powerful states with the means to surveil and destroy large parts of the planet, or parts of their own populations. But, as noted above, this is not at all limited to democracies. Both China and Singapore (one not at all democratic and one just sort of democratic) maintain elaborate surveillance systems and both evoke popular harmony and good will to justify them. Technology, power, and capitalism are just as fused here as they are in the liberal democracies. Indeed, perhaps more so for if “knowledge is increasingly defined as knowledge for the market” (p. 109) we should not ignore the elaborate ways in which the market and its function are essential to the “harmonious society” of China. Nor should we ignore how the same technological surveillance and metrological algorithms are used to create social harmony scores that the state uses to police and enforce harmony. Just as Mbembe is prone to sweeping generalizations, his tendency to conflate makes it hard to accept his conclusions. Is the problem the liberal order or its historical expression as a contingent messy pile of humanity? Is the problem democracy or its evolution into a paranoid security state?
Much of his book is torn between such problematic binaries, including its own goals of expanding democracy and criticizing it, not so much for its flawed practices in actual history but for something inherent to it. For a text that seeks to find a politics where we can live with the differences that define us as something shared in our humanity, most of Mbembe's argument rests on eliminating difference. His liberal state is nothing but a monolith devoid of nuance and his obsession with it misses out on all the ways his criticisms, however valid, are simply not limited to them. Despite the appearance of a broad intake of scholarly literature, it is in fact quite narrow. It is easy to speak in such grand terms of the liberal order and the strong state when one is primarily conversing with long dead philosophers like Hegel and Schmitt rather than contemporary scholarship (there is some, to be fair). Philosophers and philosophy necessitate a purity of debate in terms and principles at the expense of stronger arguments premised upon the nuanced reality of the living world.
And all this, mind you, occurs on the shores of those rare islands of clarity. Aside from the problems of argumentation above, this book is from cover to cover simply next to impossible to read. The back cover of the book suggests that Necropolitics will change the very terms of debate. Sadly, I doubt that.
. This definition of sovereignty is so problematic, Mbembe feels called to note in an endnote that his definition has no relationship to the concept as understood by international relations scholars.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-africa.
Derick Becker. Review of Mbembe, Achille, Necropolitics.
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